Boycott Dubai: Literature, Censorship and Homophobia in the Gulf

Several news outlets this morning carry the story of British author Geraldine Bedell being banned from the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature in Dubai because of the depiction of a homosexual relationship in her novel The Gulf Between Us, and possible queries about its stance on Islam.

[Multiple updates with response from the festival and partners, and some authors pulling out (appended below).]

The Telegraph quotes festival director Isobel Abulhoul saying that “I do not want our festival remembered for the launch of a controversial book. If we launched the book and a journalist happened to read it, then you could imagine the political fallout that would follow. This could be a minefield.”

MSNBC reports that festival organizers complained that “it talks about Islam and queries what is said.”

The New York Times quotes Bedell’s publisher, Juliet Annan, saying: ”It’s all very unfortunate. In effect the censor has said they will ban it, which means no book chain can buy it.”

The Dubai Festival calls itself “the first true literary Festival in the Middle East celebrating the world of books in all its infinite variety” – a shocking claim to be making when it in fact singles out and censors books whose variety it finds it impossible to confront. There is no place for censorship in literature, or at any “true” literary festival.

The festival claims as attendees the writers Anthony Horowitz, Kate Adie, Chimamanda Adichie, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Lauren Child, Terry Brooks, Alexander Maitland, Kate Mosse, Brian Aldiss, Robert Irwin, Rachel Billington, Frank McCourt, Sir Mark Tully, Wilbur Smith, Anita Nair, Victoria Hislop, Philippa Gregory, Margaret Atwood, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Karin Slaughter, Louis de Bernières and a host of others. It is sponsored by Emirates Airlines, and partners include Time Out and the British Council.

I urge you to contact these individuals and organisations and express your dismay at the actions of the festival, and urge them to either boycott the festival, or engage with the organisers and insist that work invited to the festival is not censored in this way.

Let’s be entirely clear about this: the suppression of literature leads to the suppression of people. Article 177 of the Penal Code of Dubai imposes imprisonment of up to 10 years on consensual homosexual relations, which is regularly enforced (see Wikipedia article). Oppression is a result of ignorance, and literature can be one of the great forces to bring understanding and the ending of such oppression. Authors, journalists and all lovers of literature should see it as something to be supported, argued over, but never suppressed.

After the jump, I’ve provided contact details for those listed above. Please consider contacting them.

Anthony Horowitz, c/o United Agents,
Kate Adie, c/o Hodder & Stoughton, 338 Euston Road, London, NW1 3BH
Chimamanda Adichie, c/o Harper Perennial, 77-85 Fulham Palace Road, London W6 8JB
Sir Ranulph Fiennes, c/o Max Adventure,
Lauren Child, c/o David Higham Associates,
Terry Brooks,
Alexander Maitland, c/o David Higham Associates,
Kate Mosse,
Brian Aldiss,
Robert Irwin, c/o Dedalus,
Rachel Billington,
Frank McCourt, c/o The Friedrich Agency,
Sir Mark Tully, c/o Penguin Publicity, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL
Wilbur Smith, c/o Charles Pick Consultancy, 21 Dagmar Terrace, London N1 2BN
Anita Nair,
Victoria Hislop, c/o RCW, David Miller, Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltdm 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN (
Philippa Gregory,
Margaret Atwood, c/o Curtis Brown,
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, (
Karin Slaughter,
Louis de Bernières, c/o Lavinia Trevor Literary Agency,

Emirates Airlines,,
Time Out,
British Council,

You can also contact the festival directly via their website (I have, and will post any response), and they’re on Twitter and Facebook too.

Please, leave a comment if you’re getting involved, get a response, or have more information.

UPDATE 17/2/09, 1230: Response received from Aedan Lake, Communications and Public Relations Manager, Magrudy Enterprises LLC

My name is Aedan Lake and I’m Communications & Public Relations Manager for Magrudy’s Bookshops, one of the organisers of the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature. Below is Isobel Abulhoul’s official response to the Associated Press story that’s been repeated throughout the international press over the past few days.

Isobel Abulhoul, Director of Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature:

We would like to clarify the situation regarding EAIFL and Geraldine Bedell. The overwhelming response to the Festival has delighted us as well as taking us by surprise; we have been greatly encouraged by the support of some of the world’s leading literary figures. As Festival Director, I have inevitably had to make the final decision on which authors we should include in this inaugural year.

I have lived in Dubai for forty years. Based on my knowledge of who would appeal to the book-reading community in the Middle East, and having read 150 pages of Ms Bedell’s manuscript I knew that her work could offend certain cultural sensitivities. I did not believe that it was in the Festival’s long term interests to acquiesce to her publisher’s (Penguin) request to launch the book at the first Festival of this nature in the Middle East. We do, of course, acknowledge the excellent publicity campaign being run by Penguin which will no doubt increase sales of her book and we wish Ms Bedell the very best.

In the meantime, we are looking forward to welcoming 66 star authors from more than 20 different countries to Dubai next week.

While we understand the reasoning behind the festival’s decision, we cannot condone an exclusion that is based so clearly on homophobia, and the perpetuation of such homophobia, particularly by a festival claiming to celebrate “the world of books in all its infinite variety”, and for this reason we will continue to urge authors and partners not to support the festival.

UPDATE 18/2/09, 1200: received from Zoe Cooper-Clark, Publisher, Time Out Dubai, official partner of the festival:

As a publisher based in the United Arab Emirates and producing magazines for the Middle East markets, we at all times endeavour to respect the law, cultural sensibilities and moral values of the region in which we operate. We understand that the organisers of the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature have taken a decision based on those criteria and defer to the organisers’ expertise in making such judgements regarding the works they wish to host and promote at their Festival.

In other words: we have a business here, and we can’t afford to rock the boat. As a subscriber to Time Out, which in London includes an excellent gay section, I’m sad, but hardly surprised. There are a lot of liberal Europeans keeping their heads down and making a lot of money in Dubai: what’s a little human rights violation when I’m all right, Jack? At some point, “respect [for] the law, cultural sensibilities and moral values of the region in which we operate” becomes a de facto statement of support for institutionalised discrimination, a point I’ve put in reply to Ms Cooper-Clark.

UPDATE 18/2/09, 1600: Margaret Atwood has pulled out of the festival, reports the Guardian:

Atwood, a vice president of writers’ group International Pen, has written to the festival’s director about the “regrettable turn of events” surrounding Geraldine Bedell’s The Gulf Between Us. “I was greatly looking forward to the festival, and to the chance to meet readers there; but, as an international vice president of Pen – an organisation concerned with the censorship of writers – I cannot be part of the festival this year,” she wrote in a letter posted on her official site.

The article also claims that other authors due to appear at the festival, including bestselling children’s authors Anthony Horowitz and Lauren Child, are now also reconsidering whether to attend.

UPDATE 19/2/09, 1500: Official statement from the British Council, received from Eleanor Hutchins, Senior Press Officer:

The British Council is committed to building mutually beneficial relationships and understanding through open dialogue.

We are a partner of the fringe festival and the education day which form part of the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature (EAIFL) in Dubai. This involvement in the festival offers a platform for dialogue and creates the opportunity to build relationships, encourage literacy and reader development, and open up the arts to new audiences.

In all our activities around the world, the British Council aims to promote open discussion and free expression. Our experience of working in over 100 countries means that we recognise that there is a balance and sometimes compromise to be made between stimulating debate around potentially contentious issues, and showing respect for local cultural differences, sensitivities, norms and traditions. This is particularly the case in the Middle East, and is a challenge that lies at the centre of our work across the range of activities and partnerships in which we engage. Successful longer term outcomes depend on ensuring that such a balance is achieved.

We have not been involved in the selection of participating authors for EAIFL, which in any such festival is the exclusive domain of the organisers. We understand that the organisers share with the British Council the wider objectives of encouraging literacy and reader development, and we recognise their extensive experience in the local cultural context.

I’m impressed to have now received official statements from all three major players I contacted, although, of course, disappointed by their failure to take real action or make any kind of judgement. The response from authors, and organisations such as PEN, has been much more encouraging, and I’ll continue to follow the story as it develops.

Posted February 17, 2009 by . Comments (3)


  1. A protest group was started today on Facebook –

    Please spread the word.

    # by Charles Kriel, February 17, 2009

  2. […]If they did hype up the idea that Bedell’s book was “banned” Penguin – and Bedell – should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Self-righteously stirring up Islamophobia to sell books – twenty years after the Satanic Verses affair – is not very smart.[…] Arts & Ecology

    # by William Shaw, February 21, 2009

  3. Islamophobia?? Cultural sensitivies?? Please. Talking of sensitivities, what about human sensitivities and human lives? what about the sensitivities of human beings in flesh and blood, i.e. all the gay people around the world (and all the people who support human rights for all, for that matter) and what about the human lives brutally threatened and trampled on in all the countries (UAE being one of them) where gays are tortured, jailed, executed? The claim to wanting our own ‘culture’, ‘tradition’, ‘values’ respected can never be done at the expenses of some people’s rights, freedom of expression, physical integrity etc etc. It’s a ludicrous claim.
    As to whether ‘stirring up Islamophobia’ is not ‘very smart’, it’s certainly very ballsy. It takes courage and moral integrity to stand up for freedom of expression and all the things you believe in.

    # by Bohoco, March 13, 2009

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